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Scientists unravel the mystery of where sea turtles go after they hatch

The first few moments of a green sea turtle’s life consist of an incredibly hazardous journey to the sea that requires them to avoid the hungry beaks of seagulls and the pinchers of crabs, among other life-threatening dangers. Once they manage to get past the breaking waves, their fate is a mystery to us until they reemerge to the beaches as sea turtle “teens.” Scientists refer to this mysterious period of a sea turtle’s life as “the lost years.”

A bit of the mystery surrounding these years has been lifted according to a recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, which reports that young green sea turtles that hatch on the beaches along the coast of Florida spend their early lives in the underwater forest of amber-yellow seaweed in the North Atlantic’s Sargasso Sea.

The Sargasso Sea is named after the free-floating sargassum seaweed that thrives there. To solve the enigma of the lost years of baby sea turtles, scientists glued tracking devices to the shells of 21 three-to-nine-month-old green sea turtles. Then, the researchers released the turtles back into the sea just ten miles offshore from where they hatched.

This study is the first that tracks the movements of such young turtles. Of those tracked, 14 of the 21 sea turtles rode north on the Gulf Stream current before exiting the underwater highway to either the western or northern Sargasso Sea.

This discovery suggests that the Sargasso Sea is an essential habitat for sea turtle populations and may inform future conservation efforts.

Florida Atlantic University biologist Jeanette Wyneken says, “These studies in which we learn where little sea turtles go to start growing up are fundamental to sound sea turtle conservation… if we don’t know where they are and what parts of the ocean are important to them, we are doing conservation blindfolded.”

The team hopes that they will be able to next find out how long the sea turtles stay in the Sargasso Sea. So far, the longest span of time they have been able to record is just 152 days.

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